The Nephandi are a fictional group of mages in the role-playing game Mage: The Ascension dedicated broadly to spreading corruption, decay, and discord. When taking the roots of modern-day Nephandi into account, they are collectively one of the oldest factions of Mages still active today.
A Nephandus (singular) is an Awakened agent of the cosmological force of Entropy, and represents the antithesis to anything other mages would try to achieve. Despite this unifying aspect of their calling, Nephandi can be motivated by a wide variety of interests. Some seek to destroy all of reality in an effort to assert their power over the ultimate constraint every mage faces. Others seek power that they consider impossible to reach otherwise, and do so by the systematic destruction of everything in their path. Yet others corrupt and destroy out of religious zeal. Many possess all three motivations to varying degrees. The crucial factor that makes them all Nephandi is, that they voluntarily chose their path and turned their backs on the ideals of Ascension willingly.
Nephandi exist in several locations on Earth and throughout the World of Darkness cosmology, but those who are most powerful dwell in the Umbra (mostly in the Deep Umbra). This is because there they seek to establish contact with entities that exist beyond known reality, but also, because many Nephandi have been purged from Earth, and routed to realms beyond the Horizon by a concerted effort of the Traditions and Technocracy during and after WWII. Since then, many lower-ranking Nephandi have managed to insinuate themselves into Earth's physical realm again, though, and new recruits are always coming.
Nephandi active on Earth are working as subtle masterminds directing cultist pawns from a distance or covertly whittle away at established structures as infiltrators and malicious schemers. The pawns of Nephandi mostly do not know the true nature of their masters' missions, but are the commonly encountered manifestations of Nephandi activity.
The Nephandi of today seem very much like a group of Mages following a unified path of Descension. This was not always the case, but the origins of the Nephandi can be traced back to the earliest civilizations of humanity.
Already in ancient times, several distinct cults of demon-worship, human sacrifice and other unspeakable practices began to spread their corrupting influence throughout the first civilizations of humanity.
In Mesopotamia, the study of astrology led to magicians and priests learning the secrets of unnamed entities living in the void of the Deep Umbra. As early as 1500BCE Babylonian priests were able to open a gate to realms beyond the Horizon to invite demons and even more inhuman things to have free rein throughout their city. Their motivation then was mostly to overthrow the powerful priesthood of Marduk and the ambition to draw power from the Anunnaku - the primordial gods who existed before creation. Their precursors were the magicians and priests of the legendary Sumerian city of Bhât which had been erased from most historical records for the abhorrent things that went on behind its walls of black stone. Those corrupt practitioners called themselves, the Nif' ur 'en Daah - the Eaters of the Weak - and their name is the assumed phonetic root of the later term Nephandi ... a word not to see common use yet for many centuries.
In Asia, high-priests and court magicians struck deals with the Yama Kings - powerful demons of suffering, death and destruction, and gained positions of power in the first civilizations of the continent. The Shang Dynasty of China soon embraced gruesome practices of human sacrifice and death cults, around the same time as Mesopotamia was under the control of demon-worshippers.
Even primitive cults in Europe, and other undeveloped lands, likewise sought power by appealing to powerful Malfean demons: In the hostile forests, mountains and highlands of northern Europe, savage tribes joined in rites of madness and rampant violence with insane werewolves of the Black Spiral Dancers.
Wherever civilizations and religions established their creation-myths and belief-systems, the ancient precursors to the Nephandi took the role of heretics, or bore the mantle of the antagonist proudly. The uniting factor of all those diverse cults at the dawn of civilization, was their uncompromising adherence to the idea that the strong and powerful shall rule over the weak. How such power and strength shall be achieved remained secondary, the most appalling of practices were acceptable to serve the goal of conquering all.
This approach, however, would prove disastrous in the centuries and millennia to come.
The horrors of priest-kings sacrificing their subjects to demons, and plundering hordes empowered by malicious spirits, were not suffered lightly by those who became the victims of such predation. In many places, ideals of broader empowerment and positive belief began to break the stranglehold of fear which held the earlier civilizations in their grip. Mystics, magicians, priests, artisans and many common folk rose up against the corruptors.
In Mesopotamia whole cities were razed to the ground and their name struck from all records. The Chinese Shang Dynasty was brought down and great philosophers, like Lao Tzu spread new ideas. In ancient Persia the Taftâni bound rampant Djinn into sealed vessels, and the earliest Ahl-i-Batin actively sought out the corrupt mages themselves to stop them. Egypt was unified under a new religious pantheon which placed deities of wisdom, craft and rebirth at the center of people's belief, and the (lumbering) savages of Europe were subdued by the armies of Rome.
Many of the corrupt Mages of old could not prevail on their quest for ultimate power through ultimate corruption either. The price their demonic "allies" were asking in exchange for the power they granted was great, and the day of reckoning came due. Many powerful mages and priests had their soul snatched away and cast into infernal realms to serve their former patrons as slaves.
Ultimately those who had forged civilizations as shelters from the hostilities of the world asserted their power over the legions of darkness, and for some time it seemed as if the evil that had been corrupting many early societies was defeated. Art, philosophy, science and religion were developed into ever more prevalent foundations for great civilizations that spread their influence quickly. Still, the seed of corruption lay dormant within, and it would not be long until a new era of evil would begin. While many of the Asian cults, like the Toc Faan and the Wu Keng - remained bound to serve demonic masters, their cousins in Europe and the western orient rallied around a new paradigm.
Ironically enough, the basis for the precursors of the Nephandi to rise again was laid by those who would most oppose them. While old polytheistic religions and animistic pagan belief has always known many antagonists and evil powers, the new monotheistic religions, which tried to supersede them, knew only one archetypical form of evil: Lucifer, Satan, Iblis. Evil was known by many names, yet they all represented one unified force in the world.
Similarly, the small splinter groups and scattered cults which had survived, unified around this principle. The God of the book was a demanding and uncompromising one, and many did not manage to live up to the ideals postulated by these religions. Those who doubted, became frustrated, lost faith or were deemed heretic had only one place to turn to: The side of the enemy of creation. The ranks of the newly emergent Infernalists swelled quickly.
In the Arabic lands, the Ahl-I-Najasa - the Filthy Ones - emerged to tempt the Batini scholars into proving their purity by braving the horrid trials the corruptors would challenge them with. Some Ahl-I-Batin took to the challenge and failed terribly. The most damned of them - Isaq al Iblis - began a reign of terror around 100CE that would last for more than 500 years, and became known as the Devil King Age. Many of the old Sumerian and Babylonian secrets were uncovered during those centuries, and should become instrumental in the development of the Nephandi for the rest of their history.
At the time of the Devil King Age, the first Cauls were either found or created. What the Cauls exactly are and how they came into being remains a mystery still, fact is, that entering the Caul will destroy and revert a Mage's Avatar. Those who willingly entered and re-emerged forever corrupted were the new exemplars of damnation. The name they chose for themselves was a bastardization of the title the ancient cults of Bhât used: Nephandi.
In the lands of the Roman Empire, and later in settled Europe, the spread of Christianity and the power of the church created a polarized society at odds with itself: Jesus had preached peace and salvation, yet chaos and suffering was everywhere. It was frighteningly easy to run afoul of the church and be declared heretic. Many saw that they have nothing to lose by joining the real heretics and satanists. Decadence and perversity spread like cancer through the remnants of once-proud Rome, and later through the ranks of the Catholic church and medieval courts.
Again, a worldview of "eat or be eaten - rule or be a slave" gained a foothold in society due to the predations of the Dark Ages. The Lex Praedatorius - the law of the predator - reformulated the ancient idea that only the most brutal and relentless should hold power. Many rulers and priests sought even greater control by listening to the promises of dark masters like in ancient times. Even idealists like Gilles de Rais or Heylel Teomim fell into darkness through despair, frustration and in search of greater power to satisfy their great ideals.
Also among pagans corruption spread again. Declared as savage, bloodthirsty heathens by the church, many despaired and fell to join the truly savage on a rampage against civilization. The K'wahll were the unstable result of an alliance between blood-pagans and the remnants of tribes that had long danced the black spiral and served the Wyrm.
Yet again evil seemed to encroach from all sides, and yet again mages and sleepers alike united against it. The Ahl-I-Batin and Taftâni in Arabia, the Order of Reason in Europe, the Wu-Lung in China and many others all around sought to cleanse the blight. The destruction of the Oasis of Eternal Bliss under the banner of Islam in 613 marks the end of the Devil King Age. Several centuries later, the dawn of the Age of Reason pushes infernalism and demon-worship even deeper into obscurity and marginality than the other mysticism and faith.
With reason as the predominant paradigm, and all things mystical declared superstitious, most forgot about the Awakened agents of corruption. Only the Ahl-I-Batin kept actively hunting the Nephandi, but soon also they vanished from the stages of history. When the Technocracy succeeded the Order of Reason, the predominance of the scientific paradigm almost fully erased the memory of the threats of old. But evil endured: The Nephandi were the largest group surviving the pogroms against fallen mages mostly intact. From their dealings with the Ahl-I-Batin they had learned the lesson of subtlety, and thus spread their influence slowly and patiently without notice, rather than trying to openly conquer with bold displays of power as in the old days.
The Nephandi had spread their Cauls throughout the civilized world, and kept converting mages through temptation and the snares of cunning psychological games. The Infernalists had become weakened and remained mostly at the mercy of their demonic masters, and the savage hordes of the K'wahll were mostly driven into extinction by the encroachment of civilization and science. The remnants of those groups, however, joined the Nephandi while retaining some affinity to their former practices to become the Infernals and Malfeans.
Technocratic control spread, but where there is power and structure, corruption and decay are already waiting in the wings. By the 19th century, the fires of industry have become just as threatening as they have become important for the modern societies. Mass poverty and social unrest were the result of an unchecked exploitation of humans and resources alike. Greed and the ambitions of great industrial powers became ever more dominant, and finally, the beginning of the 20th century saw almost four decades of warfare on an unprecedented scale: Trench warfare, tanks, poison gas, carpet bombing, the holocaust and nuclear bombs created a world of such horror, that the Nephandi saw their time come.
Gates to the deepest abyss of the void were opened to call the horrors of the outer darkness into our world, using the victims of war and atrocity as sacrifices. Beings of pure Entropy feasted on the suffering of concentration camps and revelled in the firestorms of Coventry, Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the move proved to be too bold. United in the middle of their own Ascension War, the Traditions and the Technocracy sought out the Nephandi masters and their creations. Cauls were destroyed, Labyrinths dismantled and the horrors summoned into this world were banished from Earth, along with many of their Nephandi masters.
It was too late, though. The Nephandi had learned their lessons and honed their methods. Too many and too widespread were their pawns for their influence to be fully eradicated. They granted their opponents one Pyrrhic victory to once again be able to act covertly and making the enemy believe they had been successfully extinguished. From their exile in the Deep Umbra, the great Nephandi masters could direct their servants virtually unchallenged.
All mages try to overcome themselves and the shackles of reality in one way or another. The Nephandi - however - take this idea to the extreme. To them, the ultimate obstacles to overcome are the taboos and morals of the human condition, adherence to sanity, and the very existence of reality itself. They do not intend to achieve a higher form of being i.e. Ascension, but strive for utter destruction and oblivion - Descension, as it were. To this end Nephandi draw on the powers of demons, infernal lords, cosmic spirits of corruption and inconceivable entities from beyond the Horizon.
What distinguishes Nephandi from mere Satanists and demon-worshippers, though, is the willful corruption of their Avatar. Unlike many of their historical predecessors, Nephandi do not simply worship and seek the aid of dark powers, they seek to become their peers.
As part of their initiation, Nephandi are convinced to enter a Caul, a so-called "place of Rebirth" that destroys and inverts their Avatar. Many initiates do not survive the transformation, but it is a risk they all take willingly for one reason or another. What the Cauls exactly are is not certain. Some theorize that they are parts of the outer darkness of the void made manifest in our world. Others think they might be orifices of unnamable entities that have opened into physical reality, and some put forth the idea that the Cauls might just be foci for secret rituals that can destroy the Avatar, not unlike Gilgul, and reform it afterwards.
What remains an undisputed fact is that no Nephandus remains the same after emerging from the Caul. From that point on, the Avatar is on a path to Descension, and nothing can redeem the Nephandus. The only way to halt such an inverted Avatar in its course is to destroy it.
Because the Nephandi experience magic from the perspective of an inverted Avatar, they have developed a separate system for understanding it. This method of willworking is organized around the Qlippoth (drawn from the term Qliphoth in Kabbalism), and refers to an understanding of all things that are, informed by the way that they fall apart rather than by the way they are put together. To view the world through the lens of Qlippoth is to see its ever-eroding underside. Therefore, Nephandi magic differs from normal Sphere magic in ways more profound than paradigm alone: They use the mirrored opposite of the powers of the Spheres to work their arts. They also have a different relation to Paradox than conventional mages. Because their magic aims to disrupt, rather than simply change reality, Paradox tends to strike them harder than conventional mages and they can therefore achieve only so much in terms of unraveling reality. As a result, Nephandi have become very skillful of keeping their workings hidden and subtle.
A Nephandus is typically a former member of the Traditions, Technocracy, or a Craft who has renounced that group's ideals to go through the rebirth in the Caul and assist in the progression of the world toward a state of havoc or Armageddon. These converts are known as Barabbi and make up the bulk of Nephandic ranks. In some cases, corrupted Avatars reincarnate, leading to mages who are "born bad" and operate as Nephandi from the moment of their Awakening. These are called Widderslainte (pronounce WID-er-SLAHN-sh), using a celtic word describing the antithesis to life. Those true-born Nephandi sometimes consider it beneath them to make contact with the Nephandi hierarchy and rather work alone, driven by their own dark motives only. Usually, however, other Nephandi covet such "pure born" souls and seek them out actively. Those who join up with a Nephandi faction often rise to great respect and power; considered to be unfettered by any misconceptions of former teachings.
In general terms, the Nephandi are split into three distinct factions:
The group of Nephandi appearing most "human" are the Infernals. They enter into elaborate agreements with the various Umbrood demons, devils and similar evil spirits. They are most similar to the medieval predecessors of today's Nephandi in their orientation towards dark lords and demonic masters. Other than conventional demon-worshippers, those Nephandi do not bargain for special powers with the lords of the pit, they are already Awakened. Rather, they seek to enlist the hosts of the hell, and their masters, in a grand conquest of the world to ultimately let the forces of evil triumph.
While simply appearing more or less as evil as the masters they seem to serve, infernal Nephandi are beyond mere evil: They want to topple the balance of reality, and the uncompromising greed and lust for power of the dark lords makes them suitable comrades in arms to this end.
Infernal Nephandi most often appear as the heads, or at least influential figures, of conventional Infernalist cults, and try to manipulate both the cult's acolytes and their demonic masters to their own ends. Many fail and become entrapped in the elaborate contracts the lords of hell use to secure their dark deals, doomed to servitude or worse. The Darwinist outlook of the Nephandi shows neither pity nor remorse for such failures, and the greater agenda might yet be served by the fact that some dark Umbrood gains a powerful slave. Infernal Nephandi are the most subtle and manipulative of all, and manage to conceal their agendas and appalling practice from everyone but other fallen mages they form covert networks with. Their ways of magic are most elaborate and regulated, much like the hermetic arts, and they mostly prey on mages with affinity to such methods for converts.
Another group often active on the fringes of society are the Malfeans. They choose sides with the human cultists, demented Werewolves and spirits of corruption serving the Maeljin Incarna and the Wyrm. They have worked alongside the legions of the Wyrm since ancient times. Malfeans revel in loathsome practices and systematic corruption of everything they come in contact with.
To them, the Maeljin Incarna are not spiritual guides like for the Black Spiral Dancers, or sources of power like for their human followers. They see them as creatures sharing the same cause. Since the Maeljin Incarna are Umbrood defined by their purpose, and Malfeans Awakened mages who deliberately chose this path, the Nephandi usually have a broader metaphysical view of the role they fulfill. Still, they act with all the deranged conviction most other servants of the Maeljin Incarna will display, and show little restraint and no regret at the horrible deeds they commit to corrupt all of reality.
Among the Nephandi they are the most brutal and excessive, often preferring sick acts of violence and destruction to subtle mind games and manipulation. While the Infernals spread the horror of damnation and tempt with the promise of power, the Malfeans strike at the primal fears and urges of humans. Their magic is focused through sacrifice, mutilation and sickening rituals that would make even some Black Spiral Dancers feel uneasy. They will most likely try to convert Barrabi from primal and carnal Traditions like the Verbena or Cult of Ecstacy.
Those who associate with inscrutable Deep Umbral entities so alien that few humans could even gaze at them and remain sane, are known as K'llasshaa or Outsiders. The K'llasshaa trace their practice back to the days of Sumeria, when astrologers made pacts with the nameless entities of the void, and are in some ways the "purest" Nephandi of all. They are individualists who only form small groups, but they also surround themselves with hosts of sanity-defying horrors from beyond, or set up demented cults. They draw power from the primordial gods that exist beyond even the deepest reaches of the Umbra known to humans, and are assumed to serve their interests by bringing about the end of all creation.
Since the great purge following WWII the K'llasshaa and their Umbrood companions are almost never found on Earth, but instead roam the Umbra like predators. There they mostly pose a danger for Void Engineers, Ethernauts and Dreamspeakers who went too far out on their explorations. Collectively they seek to rally those beyond for a conquest of reality itself. They fight particularly savage battles with Void Engineers who seek to establish bases of static reality in the Deep Umbra. Willingly sacrificing themselves, their creatures and the revolting vessels they travel in, to destroy a Void Engineer outpost, lest order conquers chaos instead the other way 'round. They also draw most of their converts from the ranks of that Convention, though, with Ethernauts and Dreamspeakers being their other preferred recruiting groups.
K'llasshaa are the most deranged and alien of all Nephandi. Barely human anymore, they warp reality with secret whispers taught to them by mindless horrors of the void. They are known to even perish laughing in Paradox backlashes they have caused knowingly, or sacrifice themselves to their mindshattering allies so they can devour more of reality. Many K'lasshaa ultimately break down completely and become Marauders, and generally the attrition rate among them is high. Those who prevail - however - become extremely dangerous and powerful.
Though all Nephandi serve Oblivion, they maintain a fairly rigid hierarchy based on sheer power and their grade of Descension. This system of theocratic despotism is rife with Byzantine cloak-and-dagger plots at all levels. The predatory and darwinistic outlook of the Nephandi, and their ultimate goal to negate existence itself, makes assassination and betrayal an accepted method of advancement. Obviously, to be utterly corrupt is something that should not be given up even in the face of allies or superiours. In fact, the ultimate achievement a lower-ranking Nephandi can make to please those higher-up the hierarchy, is to overcome and destroy their masters. Common Nephandic jargon defines the following levels within the hierarchy:
Beyond the hierarchy, far removed from any mortal affairs are the Aswadim. They are the Oracles of the Qlippoth, and practically on par with powerful demons, devils and Incarna; sinister and unfathomable like fallen angels. Possibly, they were the first to have gone into the Cauls, or maybe the Cauls are actually extensions of their inconceivable state of unbeing. Supposedly one of them exists - if one can call their exalted state of Descension existence - for each of the nine Qlippoth. The Oracle of Qlippothic Entropy, though, is called Al Aswad, which seems to suggest that he might have been the first of them, or remains the most powerful. The Aswadim act (at most) as symbols or guiding lights to the Nephandi, exemplary beings who have almost become one with Oblivion. They do not take an active role in leadership, but appear on rare occasions in forms that can be sustained within reality to offer great insight to select Nephandi, or commit acts following inconceivable motives. When they appear, their forms are either of sinister beauty and inhuman perfection, or of sanity-defying alien horror.